Between this glossy, beautiful, yet sputtering Tom Cruise comeback vehicle and the ignoble pander squad of Olympus Has Fallen, Spring is quickly becoming the new Fall for Hollywood — a dumping ground for failed blockbuster wannabees, mutations not creatively strong enough to withstand the onslaught that is Summer’s box-office octagon.
Unlike Olympus, however, Oblivion is a class rather than a crass act. So perfectly realized are some of its elements, in fact, that its first hour or so has the feel of an instant sci-fi classic. An older and wiser Cruise, in full comeback mode, nevertheless shows admirable restraint as a pilot-slash-technician assigned to clean up the remnants of a destroyed Earth. As leader of the supposed alien force that destroyed it, Morgan Freeman gets to let a little Morpheus-style cool into his usual professorial demeanor. And even with all that star power, the special effects are the best thing about Oblivion, director Joseph Kosinski, rebounding somewhat from the mediocrities of his Tron: Legacy debut, uses Tom’s badass heliojet thingy and the army of drones he maintains as mere elements in his vision of an deserted but still majestic planet. Like the Statue of Liberty in Planet of the Apes, the Washington Monument and the Empire State Building are presented as standalone artifacts, not just effective props but naturalistic remnants as lonely as Stonehenge. It’s hard to hate a movie that knows enough to use Procol Harum and Lord Macaulay’s “Lays of Ancient Rome” as emotional cues.
So why is Oblivion banished to April the way Cruise’s character is exiled to Earth?It’s that same familiarity hinted at above — along with Apes, The Matrix, and Wall-E, there’s a little Blade Runner, some 2001, a bit of Inception, and even some of Stephen Soderbergh’s Solaris remake, the film it must resembles stylistically, all too visible in its DNA. Kosinski doesn’t have a legacy to work with this time; he adapted this film from his own script, which he had trouble fleshing out during the 2007 writer’s strike. So he pretended to develop it as a graphic novel, stirring up buzz among congoers and getting studio buzz in the process.
And that’s exactly how the unfinished result plays out — like an undeveloped graphic novel, visually stunning, derivative, but now with big names doing a lot of the emotional heavy lifting. Watching Tom cruise through this IMAX-size landscape is almost enough at times, but there’s a compelling theme about the definition of humanity that never travels any further than his haunted eyes, several twists and turns that could only surprise science fiction newcomers, and a message about sacrifice that’s nearly unrecognizable after being stretched out by the movie’s nearly funereal pace. You won’t see a film that looks more like Oscar bait this year, nor will you experience a big budget space opera with better intentions. But without giving away what spoilers there are, Oblivion struggles harder than its characters in learning how to be human.